Tamworth Country Music Festival – 40 years young!

by Bob Kirchner. Published in Music Forum magazine, Vol 18 Issue 3 (May 2012)

In January, the iconic Tamworth Country Music Festival celebrated its 40th year with possibly its biggest crowd ever and looks set to continue for at least the next 40! The Tamworth event has grown to a point where it has been recognised as one of the top 10 music festivals in the world.

But why so successful?

First and foremost is the emphasis on Australian country music. All types of music can be heard during the January Festival, and the city suffers, as does the entire Australian music industry, from the dominance of foreign music.

But the focus and emphasis on Australian country music since the Festival was launched in 1973 continue to be what makes the Tamworth event stand out.

Second is the very nature of the Festival’s organisation. Again, unlike other singular, gated events, Tamworth is an amalgam of dozens of events, dozens of venues and dozens of organisers.

Although some have more of an impact on the Festival (like the Tamworth Regional Council and Country Music Association of Australia), no one organisation is in overall control. This can make some aspects of Festival organisation (like promotion and PR) a challenge at times, but it is also what provides its absolute vitality.

The 50,000 plus visitors (and the 50,000 plus residents in the region) have an enormous choice of how they experience ‘Tamworth’ every year.

Whether it’s a stroll down the city’s ‘boulevarde of dreams’ or tickets to a major show at the Entertainment Centre or seats at the gala Golden Guitar Awards… or the myriad of other events and activities inbetween… the Festival experience can be tailor-made to suit any individual.

The third key aspect underpinning the success of ‘Tamworth’ is the element of inclusivity. Though the major attraction and crowd draw at any event will always be the leading artists, ‘Tamworth’ offers opportunities for every act at every level.

The ‘boulevarde of dreams’ – for example – is the city’s main street and offers anyone who is prepared to get in and have a go the chance to gain exposure. Stars of today like Kasey Chambers and Beccy Cole (and many, many more) were ‘discovered’ this way.

Numerous talent quests take place during the Festival’s 10 days, the biggest and most comprehensive being the Capital Country Music Association’s National Talent Quest. For the last 45 years, this has provided a platform for many future stars.

Toyota Star Maker is the most significant of the talent searches, offering the winner (and even some of the non-winners) a high profile outlet to showcase their talents. Star Maker has been responsible for launching the professional careers of stars including James Blundell, Beccy Cole, Gina Jeffreys, Lee Kernaghan and Keith Urban.

Other awards schemes augment the process of recognition such as the Tamworth Songwriters’ Association (TSA) Awards, the Australian Bush Laureate Awards (for bush poetry), the Golden Fiddle Awards and the Australian Country Music People’s Choice Awards.

The Australian Country Music Hall of Fame provides recognition to artists, songwriters, musicians and industry people via the Hands of Fame (imprints in cement) and Australia’s highest country music honour, the Roll of Renown.

The 40th year of ‘Tamworth’ highlighted the impact the Festival has had on the Australian country music industry. Indeed, as Festival stalwart Max Ellis wrote in his book Stars, Hurrahs & Golden Guitars (released in January), there was no substantive country music industry in Australia prior to 1973.

With the draw of the Golden Guitar Awards, major acts at the time like Tex Morton, Slim Dusty, Buddy Williams and Reg Lindsay, began to make Tamworth in January an annual get-together or informal convention.

Soon after, and in the decades to follow, Tamworth became a catalyst for the formation of industry bodies and promotion of Australian country music like the TSA and Country Music Association of Australia and establishment of the Australian Academy of Country Music which all added to Tamworth’s, and Australia’s, country music industry focus.

Over the years, all of this caused the nation to sit up and take notice – and consequently, Australian country music certainly has a much bigger profile and audience than it otherwise might have.

From the city and region’s point of view, country music has given Tamworth an identity like none other. It has also created significant infrastructure for the city with the 5,000-seat Tamworth Regional Entertainment & Conference Centre built specifically as a result of the need and desire to be able to host the Golden Guitar Awards (and now many other major events).

The establishment of the Country Music Capital branding in 1969 and the subsequent promotion, together with the highly successful January Festival, has made Tamworth, Australia, widely known throughout the land and in many parts of the world.

Bob Kirchner is the Editor of the Country Music Bulletin and has had wide involvement in the success of country music.

Read more from this issue of Music Forum